Western Trips

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Grumman Avenger / The U.S.S. Hornet / Alameda California

There certainly is plenty to see while San Francisco sightseeing. One very informative, entertaining and fun stop is to visit the U.S.S. Hornet Museum. The museum is the ship itself.

The U.S.S. Hornet located in Alameda, California is a fascinating museum. The ship moored across the Bay from San Francisco is a multifaceted story of World War II in itself and I recommend anyone living in the Bay Area or visiting to add it to their list of things to do.

The three Naval attack planes at that time were fighters, dive bombers and torpedo launchers.

This interesting story is about one of the aircraft on display on the U.S.S. Hornet, the Grumman Avenger. Grumman was a division of General Motors and produced these and other aircraft prior to World War II. Like any military aircraft it had a specific job to do. The Avenger was a naval torpedo launching plane with folding wings that made it great for carrier deployment. During an attack it was necessary to fly low (sometimes 50 feet) and as close to the target as possible. Very low altitude helped to make the angle difficult for antiaircraft guns which were more designed to hit planes from above. Flying close to the target helped with accuracy. Some pilots didn't release their torpedo until the target ship filled their cockpit window view. A torpedo plane pilot had a dangerous job.

At the onset of the war, torpedo plane pilots flew the Douglas Aircraft Devastator first deployed in 1937. It was considered a slow aircraft and being slow during an attack is not the best attribute to have. It had only a 200 MPH speed during torpedo launch and this made it an easy target for Japanese fighters and ship guns. The Japanese Mitsubishi Zero's were found to be quite fast and could maneuver better than what the U.S. had in the air at the beginning of the war. In fact the U.S. was aware of the Zero's capabilities from reports received concerning earlier air battles in Asia. This presented a big problem. During the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the slow flying Devastators were nearly annihilated by the Japanese. Thirty five of the forty-one Devastators and five of six brand new Avengers which just arrived were lost.

The Avenger model from Grumman was actually planned and ordered by the military prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor as a replacement for the Douglas Devastator. The Navy started taking delivery in early 1942. These type planes as well as the older Devastators were meant to have fighter escorts to protect them against the much faster Zero and to strafe the target vessel to try to lessen their antiaircraft fire. Neither the Devastator or Avenger were designed to be fighter planes. For a variety of reasons this escort duty was not ordered at Midway (fighters did provide escort for the dive bombers) and that decision in itself is quite another interesting story to explore. Most historians believe that this decision alone is why there was such a high loss rate for both the Devastators and Avengers at Midway.

Several different models of the Avenger were built but each had a crew of three. The pilot, the turret gunner placed on top behind the cockpit canopy and a radioman-tail gunner located below and aft.

The machine guns were obviously for defense but also the tail gunner typically strafed the target after the plane dropped it's torpedo and sped away. The planes were armed with one torpedo and could be modified to carry up to 2000 pounds of conventional bombs. The ideal combat situation would be for both the dive bombers and torpedo planes to have a simultaneous attack. Hit the enemy from different angles. At times even Army Air Force high altitude B-17 bombers were used to attack ships but their hit rate was considered by some to be poor. Not easy to hit a moving target at a long distance without a guided bomb.

The Avengers used a Mark XIII torpedo. It was the most used aerial torpedo during World War II. The science involved in building and making an effective aerial torpedo is complex. Speed, depth, guidance, altitude in which it could be dropped and detonation were all factors. Typical problems were non-detonation and non-starting after being dropped. Due to this the Mark XIII went through several modifications. It's speed in the water was about 39 MPH with a range depending on modifications of about 5,000 yards. At the conclusion of the war, the Mark XIII was considered to have been a very effective weapon.

Carriers like the Hornet were the backbone of the Navy's fleet. Their planes carried enormous long range fire power. Due to this, carriers were protected by destroyers and cruisers at all costs. Carriers typically were the number one target of any attackers. At the Battle of Midway the U.S. lost the carrier U.S.S. Yorktown. The Japanese took a terrible beating losing it's four carriers before turning and steaming back to the Home Islands. The American's victory crippled the Japanese navy to the extent that it never fully recovered.

While the Avenger was designed for carrier duty, it had extensive land based action, in particular at Guadacanal in the Solomon Islands. The Avenger pilots flew out of an airfield on the island which was bombed night after night for many weeks by both Japanese bombers and surface ships. One Avenger squadron, Torpedo Squadron Eight's planes were all damaged on the airfield during Japanese shelling and they were forced to rebuild the least damaged plane from parts scavenged from the other unrepairable ones. The mechanics were successful and the rebuilt plane flew and was able to rejoin the battle and score hits.

The Battle of Guadacanal was so fierce that Navy Avenger torpedo plane pilots joined the defending Marines after their aircraft were destroyed from the Japanese bombing. Instead of the skilled pilots of Torpedo Squadron Eight flying high performance aircraft, these pilots took firearms, jumped into foxholes and prepared for hand to hand combat. A heroic war effort but not exactly something they were trained for. Eventually they were relieved by a squadron of Marine aviators but each and every man of Torpedo Squadron Eight had an experience they would never forget on Guadacanal. A similar high speed plane which was developed a few years earlier was the Lockheed Vega which Wiley Post set several records with.

The original U.S.S. Hornet, which many of these Guadacanal pilots flew out from was sunk in the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1943. Another carrier was being built at the time in Norfolk and was to have a different name but after the sinking of the original Hornet it's name was changed to keep the legacy of the Hornet alive. This second Hornet saw quite a bit of action having nearly 60 battle engagements but never was hit with either torpedo or bomb. Near the end of the war it operated as close as 50 miles from the Japanese islands.

As a side note, the disappearance of Flight 19 into the Bermuda Triangle on Dec. 5th, 1945 involved five Avenger aircraft. These were never found.

A visit to the museum in Alameda is a great learning experience and something the whole family will enjoy. A great companion side trip with the Hornet is a visit to the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien, an active ship at D_Day, on display at Pier 45 at Fishermans Wharf. The O"Brien offers a chance to walk the ship. I found this tour very interesting and fun. Makes for a good family side trip.

The web site below will give you all the information you need to plan your visit.


 The sites below have more detailed information on the Avenger.